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The biggest oversight in Obama’s climate plan is a doozy

Activists call on Secretary Jewell to Keep Our Coal in the Ground at the Colorado State BLM office, May 29, 2013
Coal should stay in the ground.

I've mostly been offering modest praise for Obama's climate plan, but there are some notable oversights. While it addresses U.S. coal-fired plants through EPA regulations, it neglects another, equally large aspect of the coal problem. Specifically, I'm talking about coal mining, leasing, transport, and export in the U.S. Northwest. There's a bad situation there and it's getting worse.

The Powder River Basin stretches across southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming. It is rich with low-grade (dirty) coal. Most of that coal is on public land, owned by you and me. What you and I are doing at the moment, via the Bureau of Land Management in the Department of the Interior, is leasing the mineral rights on those public lands to coal companies for pennies on the dollar.

Domestic demand for coal is declining (and will decline further once EPA regulations are in place), so what these coal companies want to do is start shipping the coal by rail to the West Coast and from there exporting it to China and other coal-hungry developing countries, where it sells for prices up to seven times higher than in the U.S.

It's a sweet deal for the coal companies: buy low, sell high. But it's a raw deal for everyone else and a disaster for the climate.

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The significance of Obama’s cryptic Keystone comments

In his climate speech on Tuesday -- long since swept away by the news cycle, as I predicted -- Obama delivered one big surprise: a passage on the Keystone XL pipeline. Not just that, but an utterly inscrutable passage, one that has proven a kind of Rorschach blot for the energy world.

Here's what he said:

I put forward in the past an all-of-the-above energy strategy, but our energy strategy must be about more than just producing more oil. And, by the way, it's certainly got to be about more than just building one pipeline. (Applause.)

Now, I know there's been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That's how it's always been done. But I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation's interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. (Applause.) The net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It's relevant.

Amidst these gnomic utterances, it is possible to find support for any number of interpretations. Naturally I have my own.

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The two things we learned about Obama’s plans to regulate coal

In Obama's climate speech Tuesday, he offered a rousing defense of pollution standards, practically cribbing from this post I wrote in 2009. (Be still my heart!) As expected, he called for the EPA to regulate carbon from both new and existing power plants. But he offered no detail, and nothing in his remarks addressed the stringency of the power-plant rules, which is the heart of the matter.

Nonetheless, we now know a couple of things about the coming regs that we didn't know before.

First, the timing.

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No-drama Obama unveils series of modest, sensible steps on climate change

obama-unicorn-large
Shutterstock / White House

President Obama's supporters, his critics, and the media all want the same thing from his climate speech today: drama. They want grand gestures, some sort of conversion narrative centered on Obama's will to fight the climate fight. They want a "trade" for Keystone or a climate tax declaration or something about fracking, anything to fire up audiences and get clicks. Everyone has the same incentive nowadays, the green groups, the right-wing groups, the political media, they all want and need attention. In a fractured information environment, attention is money, and it's measured in clicks. Drama gets clicks.

The Obama administration wants the opposite. It needs to reassure its environmental base and its international partners that it is working on climate change and intent on meeting its obligations. But high-profile climate drama could muck up the nomination of Gina McCarthy for EPA administrator, arouse the ire of the D.C. Circuit Court, piss off environmentalists yet again, torpedo the immigration reform effort, or, hell, just give the old white guys in the tricorner hats another excuse to march on the Mall, and aren't we all a little tired of that?

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Superman, Obama, and limits on power

SupermanI finally got around to seeing Man of Steel last week and it's got me thinking about the limits of individual action. Relatedly (ahem), Obama is going to deliver a "major climate speech" on Tuesday.

The great conundrum of Superman is that he can do almost anything. Over the years, he's gone from leaping tall buildings in a single bound to reversing time by flying around the earth really fast. His power has almost no limit; the only limit is his will. On one level, this just forces writers to create artificial weaknesses for him (see: kryptonite) or to bring in a constant stream of super-duper-villains (see: Darkseid).

But it also points to a deeper problem with the Superman character, one of the reasons it's so difficult to make a good movie about him. Because Superman could be doing almost anything at any moment, he faces limitless opportunity costs. For every second he is Clark Kent, puttering away on a typewriter, he is opting, in effect, to let people die in order to finish a story. Every second he's plucking a kitten out of a tree, or helping an old lady cross the street, or just peering off in the distance, people are dying whom he could have saved.

This moral conundrum applies to all of us on some level, of course. Right now you're reading this blog post instead of, I don't know, traveling to Haiti to help feed the displaced. But there's only so much you could be doing, so your opportunity costs aren't quite so large; your personal quality of life stacks up against them reasonably well.

But Superman's quality of life is almost meaningless relative to the good he could be doing. Follow this logic far enough and you reach the conclusion that Superman should effectively turn all his power over to human service. Matt Yglesias puts it this way:

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Germany takes the first step toward a supergrid

transmission lines
Shutterstock

Renewable energy sources, at least wind and solar, are variable -- the wind isn't always blowing, the sun isn't always shining. This is something every glib pundit on the internet cites as a reason we'll need fossil-fuel or nuclear "baseload" power plants for the foreseeable future. It's a frustrating topic, since people who actually study the subject (like NREL) have shown that there are all sorts of ways to handle variability without disrupting the grid.

One of those ways is transmission: building power lines to take renewable energy from where it is abundant (often remote areas) to where it is needed (mainly big cities). More specifically, the idea is to build high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) lines that would carry energy over long distances from remote sites and feed it into the alternating-current (AC) lines that serve urban areas. (The DC vs. AC question is interesting, but not particularly essential for understanding the bigger questions.)

Transmission is a somewhat vexed subject in the energy world. It brings land/wildlife-focused enviros and local-energy enthusiasts in tension with mainstream enviros and lots of large corporate interests. I'm a local-energy guy myself and have, in the past, pushed back against the kneejerk resort to more transmission.

Still. Even stipulating that we can and should do much, much more to encourage local energy ownership and management; even stipulating that local energy is capable of much more than most forecasts give it credit for; even then, I think new transmission infrastructure is to be welcomed.

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Can a music festival be sustainable? Pickathon is finding out

Music festivals have become big business in the music industry. According to CBS News, "the festival scene is thriving, with concert ticket sales tripling from $1.5 billion to $4.6 billion between 1999 and 2009." Just about every city and genre has gotten in on the action, hungry for a piece of the pie. Last year, the Coachella festival alone took in $47 million.

Glastonbury 2011
Mark Large
Typical festival aftermath, Glastonbury 2011.

Most festivals, however, remain fairly unpleasant on a human level. It's nice to catch multiple bands in one location, but attendees are milked mercilessly, crammed in like sardines, plied with $8 beers and $12 burritos, herded from one generic stage to another past corporate advertisements and scowling security guards, and surrounded, everywhere, always, by trash: plastic water bottles and soda cups and greasy styrofoam.

At least one festival is trying to do things differently. It takes place over three days in August on Pendarvis farm, in Happy Valley, Ore., about 20 minutes outside of Portland. Like Grist, Pickathon is entering its 15th year; it was founded in 1999. And like Grist, it has grown, organically, steadily, and improbably, from modest beginnings to ... well, somewhat less modest heights. It is the medium chill of festivals.

Read more: Living

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Hug life: Sometimes activists need to retreat, recharge, and embrace the “woo”

Trying to change the world for the better -- being an activist, social change agent, do-gooder, whatever you want to call it -- can be exhausting and dispiriting, especially for young people launching into it full of energy and hope. What activists need most is ... well, money. They're all stressed about funding.

But what activists need next most is, for lack of a better term, recharging. They need to get together and relax, share stories, celebrate each other's victories, commiserate over defeats, and get back in touch with deeper convictions and purposes. That's what gives them the energy they need to keep going in the face of setbacks.

Remarkably, though, there are very few venues or programs devoted specifically to that purpose. Occasionally organizations will have their own retreats, but those tend to be glorified company picnics. Changemakers see each other at conferences and professional events, but bad PowerPoint presentations and awkward small talk around the coffee dispenser are less than fully rejuvenating.

There should be more recharging stations for social change agents. It's on my mind, because I visited one a couple weeks ago.

It's a place called Hollyhock, which bills itself as a "lifelong learning center ... to inspire, nourish, and support people who are making the world better." It's on Cortes Island, up at the north end of the Salish Sea, perched between the British Columbia mainland and Vancouver Island. You will rarely see a more beautiful place, like some artist's technicolor dream of what the Pacific Northwest should look like: gentle seas lapping in deep inlets, evergreen trees towering everywhere, mountains looming in the distance, bald eagles dive-bombing for fish, deer nibbling at the edges, each sunset and sunrise a major motion picture event. It's like waking up in a postcard.

Read more: Living

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Some thoughts on “Pandora’s Promise” and the nuclear debate

nuclear-power-plant-sunset
Shutterstock

Nuclear power is a weird, weird thing.

It is the most socialist of all energy industries, propped up by governments everywhere it exists, yet conservatives love it. It is (putting construction and materials aside) carbon-free, yet most environmentalists hate it. It hasn't grown much, or reduced costs much, or shown any signs of being anything but moribund for decades, yet it is the subject of enduring obsession in the energy world, with one wave of "nuclear renaissance" stories after another. Its most passionate supporters are propagandists, as are its most passionate opponents, and -- the weirdest part -- virtually everyone who has an opinion is either a passionate supporter or a passionate opponent, which makes for a lot of propaganda all around.

Long story short, writing about nuclear power has always been more trouble than it's worth, at least for me. No matter what you say, a bitter, endless argument ensues in which no one changes their mind. Ever. At all. There are all sorts of things happening in energy right now that are more interesting than nuclear, so I focus on those.

Regular readers will know I feel roughly the same way about the Breakthrough Institute. BTI "bad boys" Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus receive a degree of press coverage that wildly exceeds their intellectual contributions and, like nuclear power, have an ineffable power to render everyone involved an unbearable douchecanoe.

pandoras-promise-posterAll of which suggests that the last thing I should be writing about is Pandora's Promise, a pro-nuclear propaganda film featuring the Breakthrough boys. It's like a cosmic douche vortex. No one will escape un-douched.

Nonetheless ... it's making the rounds, and people keep asking (and asking) me about it. So against my better judgment, a few general thoughts on nuke debates and the film.

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Utilities and distributed energy: Further reading

I've now written, oh, it seems like a kabillion posts on what's wrong with electric utilities and how they might be adapted for the 21st century. All of my thinking on this subject has been informed by smart work from other folks, but I didn't include a lot of links or block quotes or charts'n'graphs, because I was struggling to make the posts compact and readable by normal humans.

(now featuring cute animals!)
(Now featuring cute animals!)

So here, then, is some further reading on the subject. I'm sure I'm leaving a ton of stuff out, so please email me or leave a comment if there's something else you think should be included.